point of view in fiction

My default point of view is first person. I think everyone has a default – a narrative they are most comfortable with as a starting point. I like the immediacy of first person, and the connection with the main character that it allows, both as writer and reader.

In college I wrote a lot of fiction with alternating points of view, all of them first person, but it’s so hard to get it right and I often find it off-putting. The voices need to be so distinct in order to move from one to another without disorienting the reader. And if one character inexplicably uses the same turn of phrase that the other character used, that irritates me – these are separate people, aren’t they? It’s supremely difficult.

I read a book recently where the main part of the story was told in the first person (past tense) point of view of the main character – but at a few points in the book we get a glimpse into the mind of the man she loves. His parts are told in third person, close to his perception. This worked remarkably well – it allowed the reader a way to observe him through the main character’s eyes, and to see her through his. And the fact that it was third person narration made it less intrusive – the main character’s narrative voice was so strong that I didn’t want another voice to take over, but getting this character’s thoughts added to the whole.

One of my all-time favorite books – The Autobiography of Henry VIII: with Notes by His Fool, Will Somers by Margaret George – is told in first person past tense, Henry recalling his eventful life, as if he were writing it in a diary. It includes notes on the text sprinkled throughout by the king’s fool, reading the diary after the king’s death. The notes are brief and don’t intrude too much, and it’s nice to get a perspective other than Henry’s self-preserving tunnel-vision.

Do you ever have a first line of a book just occur to you, suddenly? Usually those lines are in the character’s voice, for me. Now and then it’s an omniscient narrator – I trust that first instinct when I sit down and write. I love the intimacy of first person, but there’s a nice, old-fashioned story-telling feeling that you can get with third person. It’s always good to experiment.

Published in: on August 15, 2010 at 10:31 pm  Leave a Comment  

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